From the President: Charter schools - NO WAY!

A recent opinion piece by Jennifer Buckingham of the Centre for Independent Studies (published widely but freely available here) promotes charter schools, yet another failed American experiment, as an answer for imaginary issues in Australian education.

While the idea of charter schools originated in the early 1970s, the first schools did not open until the early 1990s. Since that time, the US has created more than 6,000 charter schools and the concept has rapidly spread to other countries, especially the United Kingdom. At its origin, the charter school model was designed to issue charters or “contracts” for teachers to explore new ways of delivering education. Over time, the charter school concept has evolved, but so has the movement opposing them.

Diane Ravitch, a doyen of the American education system, has a regular blog on charter schools which is definitely worth your time to read. A recent opinion piece from Ravitch highlights a number of criticisms of the charter school model, providing a comprehensive reason for no education system ever to adopt the scheme.

  • On average they achieve no better student outcomes than any other school.
  • Charter schools operate in opposition to and weaken even strong public schools.
  • Charter schools operate to marginalise public schools by drawing away high-performing students.
  • Charter schools typically operate in an exclusive fashion as concerns students from disadvantaged situations – students with disabilities, students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, low income households and specific cultural or ethnic groups.
  • Many charter schools operate on a for-profit basis, and even non-profit schools use redistribution to disproportionately benefit executives and owners.
  • Charters have not operated in rural or remote settings because of the lack of viability in terms of a business model.
  • Charter schools represent the privatisation of education.

In a late challenge to the rise of charter schools, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that they are not public schools and not entitled to public funding on constitutional grounds. This will, of course, become a legal battlefield, but such a decision goes to the heart of the issue with charter schools. They are for-profit schools masquerading as public schools to claim public money, which is being dumped into shareholders' pockets at alarming rates.

For an Australian analogy we need look no further than the astronomical growth in the private for-profit providers of vocational education and training. In just a few short years, VET-Fee Help (student loans for TAFE courses) has ballooned by $400 million to more than $4 billion. This massive amount of money has become student debt paid out as profits to predatory companies.

Buckingham at least mentions the key problems with the charter school model, but then proceeds to dismiss them. As a champion of charter schools, Buckingham appears to be willing to risk the detrimental effects of a “reform” movement in education, despite the evidence against it. It behoves every teacher to understand what a charter school is and what they truly represent as we step up to advocate for the future of the education system we work in and the students we teach. That is what is at risk.

Kevin Bates

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 7, 2 October 2015, p7